Ancient Humans Liked Getting Tipsy, Too

In a new book on the archaeology and chemistry of alcoholic beverages, Patrick McGovern unravels the history of boozing

Brewing beer and other fermented beverages was a crucial activity for humans throughout history. (Alamy )
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For as long as there have been humans, there have been humans getting drunk—or at least that’s what biomolecular archaeologist and brew connoisseur Patrick McGovern thinks.

The jack-of-all-trades researcher tackles the subject at length in his new book, Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated. Part travelogue, part natural history, part cookbook, the story has McGovern hopscotching across the globe to prove the ties between human evolution and the creation of fermented beverages. He describes archaeological digs and the migrations of ancient humans from one continent to the next; the chemical analysis used to discover which ingredients went into the drinks; and his forays into “experimental archaeology” with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, in which they recreate nine ancient beverages.

“Taking all the available evidence we have, we wanted to see if we could recreate the drinks and make something that’s palatable for the modern human,” McGovern says.

These drinks (despite the moniker “brews”, they include wines, beers and “extreme fermented beverages” that use any combination of ingredients to produce an alcoholic drink) run the gamut from the oldest-known alcohol, which comes from China, to a chocolate concoction based on research from Mesoamerica. 

“We usually do not have an airtight argument that a particular recreated beverage was made in antiquity in the same way or with all the same ingredients,” McGovern writes in his book. “Our ultimate objective is to gather as many well-verified pieces of the puzzle as possible, hypothesize about what ingredients most likely went into the brew and how it was brewed, and then try to replicate it.”

In addition to exploring the intoxicating ingenuity of these ancient people, McGovern also digs deep into human evolution and the dawn of civilizations. First, he tackles the question of what Paleolithic people (the era begins with hominid tool-making around 3.4 million years ago and continues till 10,000 years ago), may have been drinking.

It’s a hard question to answer, archaeologically speaking. Alcohol evaporates from containers even if they’re sealed, leaving nothing but dust for chemical analysis. Even then, the oldest container shown to have traces of rice, grapes or hawthorn fruit and honey—ingredients necessary to make a fermented beverage—is from only 9,000 years ago. There are no surviving containers from the Paleolithic.

But McGovern sees plenty of evidence for our alcohol affinity in the body itself. “We’ve got an enzyme in our saliva that breaks down carbs into sugar, we have alcohol dehydrogenase [enzymes that break down ethanol] in our mouths, all through our gut and down through our liver.”

All these physiological elements point to traits inherited from our early ancestors, about whom archaeologists only have limited information. But in case the physiology of modern Homo sapiens isn’t enough to go off of, humans also share genes with primates and other animals that prove we’re not the only ones hooked on getting buzzed. This “drunk monkey” hypothesis states that animals whose diets are largely composed of fruits and nectar regularly imbibe naturally occurring alcohol when the fruits ferment.

There’s the Malaysian tree shrew, “a living model for extinct mammals” that drinks the human equivalent of nine glasses of wine each night. Fruit flies, like humans, contain multiple genes that dictate how they metabolize and respond to alcohol. Even bats get tipsy from eating fermented fruits, though inebriation seems to have no negative impact on their ability to fly.

Somewhere along the way, drunk monkeys became drunk hominids, and those hominids became modern humans. This is when the “bread or beer” question comes up: Did humans start agriculture to use the grain for food or for a ready supply of fermented drinks?

“We don’t know for sure and have limited archaeological evidence, but if you had your choice, which would it be?” McGovern says. “Once you have fermented beverages, it causes a change of behavior, creates a mind-altering experience. I think that could be important in developing language, music, the arts in general and then religion, too.”

The idea of beer or some other alcoholic beverage being a key component of human development has been echoed elsewhere. “It has long been speculated that increasing demands for cereals for the purpose of brewing beer led to domestication,” write researchers in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. “The most complex communities [in the Near East] seem to have been complex hunter/gatherers who could be expected to have hosted competitive feasts in which brewed beverages would have been highly valued.”

Or as psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn writes in the New York Times, “Beer was thought to be so important in many bygone civilizations that the Code of Urukagina, often cited as the first legal code, even prescribed it as a central unit of payment and penance.”

Just consider what the fermentation process must have looked like to humans who had no concept of how yeast and sugars combined to create alcohol. The containers holding the liquid would’ve moved around as carbon dioxide was released, the liquid would turn foamy, the smell and flavor at the end would be far different than they had been at the start. Combined with the brain-altering effects of drinking these elixirs, it’s no surprise humans imputed the miraculous transformation to the work of the gods.

From there, McGovern says, the beverage became the center of social life. It’s a pattern he’s seen around the world, from winemaking in the Middle East and Europe to sorghum beers and palm wine brewed in Africa.

For all he’s uncovered about alcoholic beverages of the past 10,000 years, there are plenty of questions that remain to be answered—including the advent of distilled liquors in the New World. McGovern concludes his book by delving into ongoing research into whether the Aztecs or other civilizations of the Americas created distilling methods before the Spanish arrived with their rum stills.

As for his readers, McGovern hopes some might be inspired to try the recipes in the book. But if nothing else, he says, “I hope they come away with an appreciation for how fermentation is really an essential part of life on this planet and in human societies. It has had a profound effect on what we are today.”

Homebrew Interpretation of Chateau Jiahu 
by Dough Griffith (based on McGovern, 2009/2010)

Ingredients
5 gallons Cool water 
4 pounds Extra light or light dry malt extract
2 pounds Rice syrup solids
1/2 pound Dried hawthorn berries
1/4 ounce Simcoe hops
1/2 ounce Sweet orange peel
3 pounds Honey
1 packet Fermentis Safbrew Abbaye, White Labs WLP530 Abbey Ale, or Wyeast 4143 Sake
1/2 quart White grape concentrate
1 cup Priming sugar 

Starting gravity: 1.088
Final gravity: 1.015
Final target alcohol by volume: 8.5%
International Bittering Unites: 10
Finished volume: 5 gallons 

Process
If using the liquid yeast, we recommend making a starter 24 hours before brewing to maximize yeast cell counts. 

1. Fill a brewpot with the 5 gallons water and bring to a boil. 
2. As the water is beginning to boil, remove the pot from the heat. 
3. Add the dry malt extract and rice syrup solids. Stir to prevent clumping and scorching on the bottom of the pot. Return the pot to heat. 
4. Allow the wort to come to a boil, and boil for 30 minutes. If using defoamer to help prevent boilovers, add per instructions. 
5. While the wort is boiling, put the hawthorn berries ina  blender, cover with wort (liqwuied from the brewpot—caution: hot), and carefully purée. 
6. At the 30-minute mark of the 1-hour boil, add the puréed hawthorn berries. Boil for 30 more minutes. 
7. 50 minutes into the boil, add the Simcoe hopes and orange peel. 
8. At the 60-minute mark, turn off the heat. Add the honey. Stir the wort for 2 minutes while building up a whirlpool effect. Stop strring and allow the wort to sit for 10 minutes. 
9. Chill the wort with a wort chiller or in a cold water bath until it is under 75°F. 
10. Transfer the wort into a fermenter; aerate (rock the baby) for 1 minute. 
11. Pitch the yeast into the fermenter. 
12. Top up the fermenter to the 5-gallon mark with cool water. 
13. On the second day of fermentation, add the white grape concentrate. 
14. In about 14 days, the beer should be ready to bottle. It can be siphoned to a 5-gallon carboy to allow extra time for clearing if desired, for about 7 days. 
15. Before bottling, clean and sanitize the bottles and caps and create a priming solution of 1 cup boiling water and the priming sugar. 
16. Siphon the beer into a sterilized bottling bucket, add the water-diluted priming solution, and gently stir. Bottle and cap the beer. 
17. Allow the beer to condition for another 10 days at 70 to 75°F; it should then be ready to drink. 

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